The initiative, co-sponsored by supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Joe Simitian, would be the first such program in the state. Ellenberg said she's hoping to have the initiative lined up in time to start in the 2020-21 school year.
In Mountain View, two schools will be eligible to participate, Castro Elementary in the Mountain View Whisman and Alta Vista in the Mountain View-Los Altos High school districts.
"With the free and reduced lunch rate of 84%, many families at this school have to make a choice of paying rent or food," said Debbie Austin, Mountain View Whisman School District's director of child nutrition in a statement. "By feeding everyone we eliminate the need to ask students for payment. Meals at school will help many children be healthier, miss fewer days of school and a full stomach makes for a mind that can concentrate on learning."
The program will also eliminate the need to encroach on general funds to cover the cost of unpaid meals, she said.
About 1 in 3 children in the county experience food insecurity, according to Tracy Weatherby, vice president of strategy and advocacy at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, the local food bank.
"School meals are one of the most crucial tools to make sure that those kids are ready to learn and thrive," Weatherby said.
"At a time where there is great fear in our community and stigma around applying for free and reduced price meals, these universal meals programs build strong community by feeding all the children in a school together," she said in a letter to the board.
Mary Ann Dewan, county superintendent of schools at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, expressed strong support for the pilot program. "The intersection between health and education is undeniable," she told the supervisors. "Families in Santa Clara County are facing very real challenges related to housing, child care and food insecurity. Food insecurity is top of mind for many families. The lack of consistent access to an adequate amount of nutritious food has harmful educational and health consequences for children."
However, not all needy children are eligible for federally supported school meal programs — the income thresholds don't account for the high local cost of living causing financial hardship, according to a memo by county staff. According to Santa Clara County staff, the threshold to be eligible for school meal programs is 185% of the federal poverty level, or less than $50,000 for a family of four — a very low threshold that excludes many financially struggling households in expensive Santa Clara County.
Changes in federal rules about who can access the subsidized food support, as well as fears surrounding the federal "public charge" rules that could prevent immigrants from becoming citizens, has made it hard for the county to get food assistance to eligible families.
Plenty of eligible students currently do not take advantage of existing meal programs, staff report. In Santa Clara County, only 35% of eligible students participate in the school breakfast program and only 68% in the school lunch program.
According to research, staff note, kids who do participate in school breakfast programs have higher standardized test scores, fewer behavioral problems and higher attendance rates.
The idea is to offer the pilot program to all school campuses in the county that have at least 70% of students who are eligible for free or reduced price meals, or otherwise have a high proportion of students who qualify for some form of federal assistance — which at the last count in 2019, represented 84 schools in 17 school districts countywide. The county expects only half of the eligible schools to participate, and would set aside $2 million in funding per year while also leveraging additional federal support. The pilot program is expected to expand school meals to about 12,000 children throughout the county, offering 3 million meals a year at a cost of about 60 cents per meal.
"The quick and dirty of it is this: Kids aren't participating (in school meal programs) because of fear, because of stigma, and because of bureaucracy. We get rid of the fear, the stigma and the bureaucracy and those kids are going to participate. And when they do participate, their attendance is going to go up, their behavior's going to be better, and they're going to be learning more — and that is a great return on investment by anybody's measure," Simitian said at the meeting.
Staff will also explore possible sources for matching funds to support the program.
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